MS. REBECCA SHEIR
Tater tots, fried chicken, chocolate milk. For a long, long time, lunchtime in public school cafeterias was rooted in staples like these. But D.C. Public Schools is saying farewell to such high calorie-low nutrition fare. Four of every 10 DCPS students are overweight or obese. So it's part of the school system's efforts to combat childhood obesity.
MS. REBECCA SHEIR
Kavitha Cardoza visited one D.C. school to check out the cafeteria menu and see if she could find the answer to an age-old question, how do you get kids to eat healthier, more nutritious food?
MS. KAVITHA CARDOZA
It's snack time at Powell Elementary School in Northwest D.C. Students can pick any one fruit and one vegetable from a platter that includes red peppers, orange cantaloupe and green sugar snap peas.
How you doing, sir?
May I have grape and orange?
Has to be one vegetable. You have a fruit and one vegetable.
Broccoli? Okay. You enjoy that young man.
Different colors can help entice children to try something new. Some of them have never seen food, such as strawberry or squash. Nine year-old Steven Alvarez tastes grapefruit for the first time.
MR. STEVEN ALVAREZ
It's my new favorite fruit. My friends, sometimes they don't try it because it looks gross. They only like things that they have tried before.
The goal of such tasting is also to teach children about how eating healthily can improve their memory and build strong bones. But seven year-old Davisha Hockiday had an entirely different reason when she chose carrots.
MS. DAVISHA HOCKIDAY
One of my aunts, when they were little, they were told that when they eat carrots their eyes will look beautiful and when she grew up, they did.
There's a lot more emphasis on fruits and veggies in D.C. schools because of a law called The Healthy Schools Act, which the city council passed in May 2010. Council member, Mary Che, championed the act as a way to reach more than 70,000 students in the public school system.
MS. MARY CHE
If they're going to be having meals in school we're responsible for them. I think it's so wrong-headed to think that we should just allow them to eat food that's bad for them.
DCPS is now serving 2 million more meals this year compared to last year because of expanded breakfast and supper programs. Schools are encouraged to serve vegetarian options and students must have access to cold, filtered water. The District is one of the few cities in the country to fund the changes through a soda tax that generates $6 million. Ed Bruske, a blogger who's written extensively about D.C. school meals says change was sorely needed.
MR. ED BRUSKE
Kids were getting 15 or 16 teaspoons worth of sugar in breakfast. One lunch consisted of a bag of Sun chips, potato wedges and strawberry milk. That qualified as a lunch in D.C. schools.
Jeff Mills heads food and nutrition programs for DCPS. He's responsible for 60,000 meals served everyday at more than a 120 schools. Mills says students are now served more whole grains, low or nonfat milk and a different fruit or vegetable each day.
MR. JEFF MILLS
No flavored milk and there's no fried foods on the menu at all. You don't have any chicken nuggets, no French fries.
Bruske calls the changes dramatic but says the nutritional standards don't go far enough. Bruske wants to see less sugar, fewer potatoes and less salt and much more emphasis on educating children about what they're being served and why.
It's not at all a kid-friendly program. it's a government program with standards that are designed by a committee and rules and regulations that are aimed at adults and the kids are the caboose. They're the last consideration. You know, will they eat this food?
Mills agrees, getting children to eat the healthy food is challenging. He sampled approximately 300 items to see which ones would work in schools. Mills says baked fish was unexpected hit. So were fresh salads and barbeque chicken. But there was one disaster dish.
Rock 'n' Moroccan Stew, you know, we're challenged with adding more beans and more lentils to the menu but the feedback that we got at the beginning of the year was anything with beans the kids didn't like.
What, what is, I've never heard of...
Rock 'n' Moroccan Stew and you probably never will again.
Advocates say improving the quality of food in schools is critical, especially as so many students, approximately 10,000, now eat all three meals in schools. Mills says implementing the law wasn't just changing the menu or increasing the number of the meals. It was also a lot of behind the scenes work, including more staff training.
Storage, in terms of needing to convert freezers to refrigerators because we have much less frozen food than we ever had before and we have more deliveries now because we have more fresh produce coming in.
Mills plans to expand the number of salad bars in schools and buy more foods from local farmers. It's too early to tell whether the healthier foods are making a difference in terms of children's health, but DCPS is now tracking height and weight to see whether they're shedding pounds. Those results should be available sometime next year. I'm Kavitha Cardoza.
Transcripts of WAMU programs are available for personal use. Transcripts are provided "As Is" without warranties of any kind, either express or implied. WAMU does not warrant that the transcript is error-free. For all WAMU programs, the broadcast audio should be considered the authoritative version. Transcripts are owned by WAMU 88.5 FM American University Radio and are protected by laws in both the United States and international law. You may not sell or modify transcripts or reproduce, display, distribute, or otherwise use the transcript, in whole or in part, in any way for any public or commercial purpose without the express written permission of WAMU. All requests for uses beyond personal and noncommercial use should be referred to (202) 885-1200.